This article originally appeared on MarketingProfs.
For years, many B2B brands invested more in sales and product than in brand marketing, the conventional wisdom being that superior specs and personal relationships would win the day. Today, however, it’s clear that strong brands are just as crucial in B2B, where they enhance effectiveness of demand-generation activities, lower the cost of sales, and command a price premium.
Some of B2B branding’s salience stems from evergreen truths: emotion has always been a larger driver in B2B purchases than some imagine. At the end of the day, a business buyer is still a human buyer. Consider the detrimental career implications of selecting the wrong supplier for a critical business process.
What’s more, savvy B2B brands recognize that potential buyers can be classified into two groups: in-market and out-of-market. Only a minority of buyers are currently in-market, or actively seeking your product or service, and thus likely to respond to rational product features and benefits marketing. Most aren’t actively shopping: the goal with this out-of-market majority is to be memorable enough that when these buyers have a need, they seek out your brand. Emotional messages are more likely to create these memorable bonds.
The power of emotion aside, we’re also experiencing major market shifts that are intensifying the importance of smart branding for B2B. Both technical and societal, these new realities make it more critical than ever for B2B marketers to focus on brand—specifically how purpose, values, and user experience shape their messages and behaviors.
1. Digital transformation
Today, almost every company is a digital company, particularly in B2B, where many legacy providers of technology and professional services have to incorporate software offerings, often with subscription plans.
This new business model has upended the B2B sales cycle. To renew and grow subscriptions, companies must keep customers engaged and satisfied throughout their experience journey; conversion to sale is just the beginning. In short, marketers must think about customers as users, rather than as buyers.
With this in mind, great B2B companies become true resources committed to their clients’ success. Take HubSpot, the pioneer of the digital inbound marketing space. Its brand voice—empowering yet simple—is channeled through every touchpoint, including its AI chatbots. What’s more, it’s come to serve as a hub for professionalization resources, offering freemium content for marketers at every step of customer relationship management (CRM) implementation. By being approachable, easy to “talk” to, and a rich source for marketing thought leadership, HubSpot’s brand experience lives up to its promise to help clients Grow better.
2. Increased competition
With digital transformation comes competitive proliferation, as traditional barriers to entry come tumbling down thanks to scalable technology platforms, remote work, and copious VC funding. It is challenging for any B2B company to maintain differentiation at the product or feature level. This is where B2B branding comes in.
Brands must show that while their heritage gives them scale and resources, they possess the ability to flex to meet modern demands and opportunities.
American Express had long found differentiation in its exclusivity; paying with a Gold (or Platinum or Black) AmEx card was a sign of prestige. Further, by providing shoppers financial incentives for buying local on Small Business Saturdays, American Express became the credit card provider of American small businesses. The program proved enormously successful, driving revenue to small businesses and also evolving American Express’s brand positioning to be highly purpose-driven and differentiated.
3. Sustainability as business imperative
Every year it gets clearer that environmental sustainability is not a “nice to have,” but rather an imperative for continued business success. B2B companies have some of the largest changes to make to lower their carbon footprints; industrial and utility firms create about 50 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases.
In times of transition, brand provides not only a guiding light, but also goodwill from stakeholders. Marketing will play a pivotal role, translating complex boardroom decisions about sustainability into reasons to believe for clients, employees, and investors alike.
Additionally, a well-loved brand can provide some insulation from stakeholder doubt; the goodwill earned from years of brand marketing can ease B2B companies’ sometimes bumpy transitions from brown to green energy.
For a case in point, look at Maersk, the shipping giant whose very Scandinavian brand is based in humility, accountability, and “constant care.” Maersk’s brand-building activities have proven extremely valuable to the firm, especially in times of crisis. For example, after one of its cargo ships struck and killed a whale, the brand’s transparency and contrition on social media won the respect of many followers, easing the potentially negative PR effects of the incident.
4. Millennials as decision-makers
Millennials are now well into adulthood and occupy prominent decision-making roles, responsible for making myriad B2B purchases on behalf of their companies, from services to products. Having come of age with mobile banking and Amazon Prime, they expect the B2B brands they procure to deliver similarly personalized and frictionless experiences.
This includes employer brands. According to a study by American Express, 78% of millennials say they want to work with a company with whom their values align.
Brand marketing is central to articulating and evangelizing a corporate ethos. However, this must be done in tandem with employee engagement initiatives that model desired behaviors and reward those who live the brand. An engaged workforce is often a B2B brand’s greatest marketing asset, more effective at disseminating brand messages and creating a consistent experience than any paid channel. Keep in mind, the talent you attract will define the brand that you become.
Salesforce has invested seriously in cascading corporate values throughout the organization. It’s become well-known for its promotion of “stakeholder capitalism,” or the idea that business can benefit not only investors, but also employees, customers, and community members. Salesforce walks the walk. Its “trailblazers,” as it calls its employees, are empowered to contribute to positive social change as part of their job duties. The company’s 1-1-1 program devotes 1 percent of Salesforce’s equity, technology, and its people’s time to bettering education, equality, and the environment. For its efforts, Salesforce has been consistently named one of the best places to work in America.
United in purpose: Great B2B branding
The B2B companies that have risen to the new brand imperative have all located their North Star in something more emotionally impactful than products, services, or shareholder value. From HubSpot’s commitment to helping other brands grow better, to Maersk’s stalwart uprightness, mission-centric brands allow enterprises to create human connections with employees, customers, and the community, while simultaneously guiding the sometimes dramatic changes necessary for growth in today’s fast-paced, highly saturated markets.
Margaret Molloy is Global CMO